Gender neutral toys aren't evil: A response to Christina Hoff Sommers

Christina Hoff Sommers at the Atlantic has published a very long, very annoying article complaining about the existence of gender-neutral efforts in Sweeden:

 subterfuge and propaganda appear to be the order of the day in Sweden. In their efforts to free children from the constraints of gender, the Swedish reformers are imposing their own set of inviolate rules, standards, and taboos.

Sommers thinks it's very important to defend the position that it might be incredibly immoral, like, Orwell-level immoral, to pursue a non-gender-delineated society.  The subhed of her article is "The logistical and ethical problems with trying to make toys gender-neutral."  Yeah, thats right.  Ethical problems.  She's arguing that it's ethically wrong to raise kids in a nongender environment.

Her article extensively insists that "Boys and girls are different."  That quote comes from a statement put out by a Hasbro manager.  The whole article is obsessive about maintaining an impression of a gender binary, in a system that's explicitly denying it -- trying instead to insist, apparently, that Sweeden is attempting to manufacture a new gender to which they expect everyone to conform, rather than what they seem to actually be doing: removing the idea of a gender binary from the kids' self-identity, and encouraging them to value life skills outside the ones most valued by the gender they've been assigned at birth.

Children, with few exceptions, are powerfully drawn to sex-stereotyped play. David Geary, a developmental psychologist at the University of Missouri, told me in an email this week, "One of the largest and most persistent differences between the sexes are children's play preferences." The female preference for nurturing play and the male propensity for rough-and-tumble hold cross-culturally and even cross-species (with a few exceptions—female spotted hyenas seem to be at least as aggressive as males). Among our close relatives such as vervet and rhesus monkeys, researchers have found that females play with dolls far more than their brothers, who prefer balls and toy cars. It seems unlikely that the monkeys were indoctrinated by stereotypes in a Top-Toy catalog. Something else is going on.

(emphasis mine)

This section is just blatantly disingenuous.  Of course our close relatives among primates are influenced by the culture around them.  There are many well-known examples of monkeys modeling their behavior based on the behaviors of other monkeys, and enforcing social norms even without particular reasons.  The fact that they won't have gotten these impressions from a toy catalog doesn't mean they weren't influenced by their peers.

Sommers even tries to force people who don't identify with their assigned gender all into one category -- that of the other gender.

The Swedes are treating gender-conforming children the way we once treated gender-variant children. Formerly called "tomboy girls" and "sissy boys" in the medical literature, these kids are persistently attracted to the toys of the opposite sex. They will often remain fixated on the "wrong" toys despite relentless, often cruel pressure from parents, doctors, and peers.

No, it's not the same thing at all.  The Swedes are treating everyone like liking things and giving things a chance shouldn't be conditioned upon one's genitals.  What you're doing is saying everyone fits into one of two absolutist categories, and that the only non-traditional manifestation of these categories is when a kid of one sex identifies with the other gender.

Sommers's point overall seems to be that there's something morally wrong with discouraging children from aggressively gendering themselves and each other.  But we discourage children from plenty of needlessly harmful behavior that may come naturally to some of them.  What this sounds like to me is the panicked wailing of a cisgendered person struggling to find a way to avoid thinking about gender as being more complicated than a simple binary, and thinking about people not being constrained by particular conditions of their biology.

And if, at the end of all of this, upon the success of the Swedish nongendered schools, more people with penises than with vaginas still like trucks and arm wrestling, that doesn't mean the Swedes weren't right.  All it means is that there is a biological component to interests -- the existence of which does not validate proactively pouring massive civilization-scale resources into enforcing and reinforcing a much more restrictive and oppressive cultural component to interests.